Bad rap haunts Vietnam despite tourism boom

By Nguyen Quy   December 31, 2019 | 05:18 am PT
Bad rap haunts Vietnam despite tourism boom
A foreign couple walk on Saigon's Bui Vien Street. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
While Vietnam welcomed record tourist numbers in 2019, air pollution, road deaths and rampant scams continue to tarnish its reputation.

Worsening air pollution in Hanoi and HCMC, Vietnam's largest metropolises, have become a headline concern in the country. Air quality in both cities soared from bad to worse in 2019 with pollution indexes nearing "dangerous levels" to create widespread health fears.

Officials have blamed low air quality in the two cities on construction, a growing number of cars and motorcycles and heavy industry, including steel works, cement factories and coal-fired plants.

"Vietnam must come to grips with the national crisis of air and water pollution for the sake of its 94 million citizens and the tourism industry. This is the responsibility of everyone, including business owners, and the government, which can enforce existing laws," said Mark Ashwill, co-founder and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company. Ashwill has been living here for 14 years.

Meanwhile, road accidents remain the biggest single cause of deaths in the country as it works to make roads safer. Violations of the law, inadequate law enforcement, poor driving skills, traffic congestion, and bad infrastructure are the main culprits in road crashes.

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) survey shows around 9,000 people died on Vietnam’s roads every year, or one every hour, costing the country approximately 2.5 percent of its GDP. According to WHO statistics, road death rates in Thailand and Vietnam respectively reached 32.6 and 26.1 per 100,000 people last year.

In February, a foreign woman died and several of her companions were seriously injured in the central province of Quang Nam when their motorbikes were hit by a tractor trailer moving in the same direction. In August, a European woman was killed after a truck slammed into her motorbike in northern Ninh Binh Province.

Romuald Brosson, a French tourist on a two-week holiday with his girlfriend in Ho Chi Minh City, said one of his worst fears is road safety in Vietnam where drivers don’t respect pedestrians.

While the government seeks ways to persuade visitors to stay longer, rip-offs, cheating and harassment also cast an ugly glow on Vietnam’s tourism industry and negatively affect visitor experience.

"Vietnam is generally a very safe country, though there are occasional drive-by purse or bag snatchings, more in HCMC than in Hanoi," Ashwill said.

"Robbers, usually two guys on a motorbike, one driving and the other the ‘lookout’, have a total disregard for human life and have no qualms about injuring or even killing someone just to steal a smartphone, money, or whatever is available," he added.

Carl Robinson, an American former war correspondent who used to lead tours to Vietnam, said the overall problem with Vietnam is return visitors. "People come once, tick it off their list and never return."

"Hassling and cheating by tourism services are leaving a bad impression on international visitors, negatively affecting the quality of their experience when frequenting popular tourist destinations," Robinson said.

The most notorious incident to trigger public anger involved that of cyclo driver Pham Van Dung, who charged an elderly Japanese man VND2.9 million ($125) for a five-minute ride. He was arrested in August on charges of property appropriation. The normal cyclo rate in Saigon and other major cities is around VND100,000 ($4.3) per person per hour.

Also in August, an Indian tourist was ripped off by a taxi driver who charged him VND1.2 million ($52) for an eight-km ride from the airport to Nguyen Hue Street in HCMC's District 1, which normally costs only VND150,000 ($6.5).

Last November, an unregistered taxi driver in Hanoi was fined VND4.7 million ($202) and his driving license revoked for two months after ripping off a British visitor. John Hemery was overcharged VND960,000 ($41), 10 times the meter fee for a five-km ride.

Foreigners who struggle to navigate Vietnam’s streets or language are especially vulnerable to these tactics. It’s no coincidence they are some of the most frequently targeted victims of thieves and robbers in broad daylight.

Unchanged for years, the situation pushes Vietnam’s rich culture and great scenic beauty into the shadows.

A recent World Bank report said cheating and the lack of road safety are among the most negative experiences faced by international tourists to Vietnam.

More to improve

Fining those who harass and cheat foreigners acts as slack deterrent, according to many netizens who blame weak law enforcement for the continued fraud perpetrated on visitors, tarnishing the country’s image.

While Vietnam experiences a tourism boom with a record high of 18 million foreign arrivals in 2019, the numbers are lower than those of neighboring countries like Thailand (38 million), Malaysia (25 million) and Singapore (18.5 million).

Ken Atkinson, founder and senior board adviser of Grant Thornton and vice chairman of Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, said he "personally believes the actual return rate for tourists is lower than the quoted 20 percent, as some reports record return tourism at less than 10 percent."

The main reason for the low return rate is that Vietnam has yet to establish itself as a family holiday destination, as Thailand and Indonesia have managed to do. It is believed the return rate for tourists to Thailand is closer to 50 percent, he said.

In order to position itself accordingly, Atkinson suggested Vietnam adopt a friendlier visa regime, more activities for family recreation and better infrastructure, as well as higher quality services and safer roads.

After all, the government has made great efforts in making tourism an economic spearhead, including visa waivers for nationals of potentially large tourism markets, the launch of a slew of new direct flights and increased nighttime activities like shopping and amusement.

Authorities expect 20.5 million visitors in 2020 and revenues of $35 billion, equivalent to 10 percent of GDP.

2019 has been a record-breaking year for tourism as foreign visitors to Vietnam surged 16.2 percent over the previous year, reaching an all-time high of 18 million, according to General Statistics Office.

The country consistently features in world's top 10 lists drawn up by reputable travel sites and newspapers like The Guardian, CNN, Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and Rough Guides.

In 2019 Vietnam was crowned "World's leading heritage destination" and "Asia’s leading culinary destination" for the first time at the World Travel Awards (WTA).

Last February, Hanoi was thrust into international limelight as the capital hosted the second historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, which ended with no deals inked due to disagreement over sanctions imposed on North Korea.

Google Doodle on July 16 featured the ancient town of Hoi An on its homepage, making it the first Vietnamese destination to be honored thus. It was to mark the traditional Lantern Festival, held on the 14th day of each lunar month.

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